I gripped the corners of the seat’s arms, digging my fingernails into the plastic. My forehead was glazed with sweat and I wondered at exactly which point the cocaine would dissolve itself from my system. The drug was new to me and I could already tell that I hated it. Had I known that it would have multiplied my fear of planes by tenfold, I would have never allowed myself to stuff the junk up my nose several hours before boarding the flight back to New Jersey. Each time the plane jerked more beads of sweat lined up on my brow and top lip. I’m going to have a heart attack before this thing sets down.
This was the end to my strange journey into the desert. This whimsical flight into madness was going to end with a heart attack or a plane crash; fitting enough.
I had arrived in Albuquerque, NM eight months earlier on a day that had seen the worst blizzard in ten years. The citizens of this desert city considered three inches of snow a blizzard, and I should have known that I was in a weird place when a television newswoman ambushed me with cameraman in tow at a Denny’s parking lot.
“So what do you think about all this snow?”
“How are the roads? Is it too dangerous to drive?” I had just finished sleeping my way through a several-hour flight, and had no desire to exaggerate perfectly fine weather conditions.
“They’re fine. I’m from New Jersey. This is nothing,” I said.
“Uh,” she exhaled. “Thanks anyway.”
My first priority in arriving was to get a car. I had a couple grand in my account, and I thought I could pick something up easily from an auction. After trying my hand at a room full of Mexicans bidding over broken down pieces of junk I realized this task would be harder than predicted. I referred myself to my uncle, who was my liaison for this trip into the film business; my reason for being in Albuquerque. My uncle, Roberto, was running a gay and lesbian film festival every year in the city that had become pretty successful and had several contacts in the growing film industry in the southwest.
He hooked me up with a friend of his who had a 1998 white Jeep Cherokee for sale for only fifteen hundred bucks. I jumped at the offer and ran to see the vehicle. For one reason or another, Roberto had decided not to tell me about the car’s most prominent feature: poetry scrawled all over the exterior with charcoal pencil. The writings had been on the paint for so long that the words had baked themselves into the paint; it would be impossible to remove. I thought about the room full of sweaty Mexicans shouting figures at each other and had made my decision: “I’ll take it.”
Uncle Roberto was working as a production assistant on a film called First Snow that starred Guy Pearce and Piper Perabo. He invited me to the wrap party and I, a huge fan of the film Memento, jumped at the chance to meet Pearce. A new friend I had acquired within my first week in the Land of Enchantment slipped me a drop of something that later I would later discover was acid. That mixed with a lot of booze and before I knew it, I was standing in front of Guy Pearce in a bowling alley.
“I usually sprinkle a bit of the tobacco in with the green stuff, mate,” Pearce said.
I looked at Guy Pearce with plastered marbles, my brain swimming in concoctions of Hypnotiq and Hennessey (aka the “Incredible Hulk”), almost chuckling at his British-like twang. “Where I’m from,” I babbled, “we dump obscene amounts of weed into hollowed out cigar leaves, man.”
“Where ya from?” For a second, I had an existential experience. I jumped out of my skin and looked on with the curiosity of a museum patron. Was this me? What the f*ck am I doing here? Why is my hair tussled like that? My shirt looks too tight.
“I’m from New Jersey,” I enunciated as if talking to a Norwegian tourist completely unfamiliar with the English language, straining each syllable, neck muscles bulging with emphasis.
“I’m…from Sydney,” he replied. Then, here it came. The awful silence. I swam for the proper word or phrase that would extend this conversation from a friendly banter to visceral musing. As the acid began to take hold, I noticed two purple tongues lash out the sides of his neck. They flailed and shot out taking wisps of my green drink back into the neck portal they came from.
“Here ya go, mate,” he said as he passed me the joint. I shoved the frail thing to my lips and inhaled slowly as the trails of smoke ran down the insides of my throat, tickling some sort of fleshy appendage that refused the stuff; I held back the cough.
In the time it took me to suck down a couple of drags, I thought of several things to keep Guy’s interest in me: Where in Australia could a dude like me have a good time? What projects are you working on? Was Russell Crowe a dickhead on the set of L.A Confidential?
“Russell Crowe’s a dickhead,” I blurted.
“Excuse me?” he said.
I passed the joint back, my mouth spouting finer truth, “I need another drink.”
On my way to the shoddy bowling alley bar I spotted Piper Perabo — at the time known for her turn in Coyote Ugly — jerking and flailing her limbs about to a psychedelic tune, her movements unpredictable and violent akin to victims of lightning strikes, seizures, or electric chairs. She must have had the same sh*t as me.
“Hip-hop and leathery,” I slurred to the bartender, trying to say Hypno and Hennessy. Fluent in drunken speak, she easily determined I wanted another “Incredible Hulk.” As she poured the drink, I took stock of how much I had ingested so far: one drop of Californian liquid acid, several joints of Australian marijuana. This of course was on top of the syrupy green sludge this amphibious bartender kept sliding to me, most of which I had already determined was spiked with the same nuclear toxins they made the public sip on nightly that reduced their proper judgment into blind adoration for reality TV stars.
I looked around the room: a bowling alley rented out so that these high-class folk could suck down drink, food, and each other’s inflated egos. It looked like a big snake swallowing its own tail for sustenance. All these Hollywood heavy- and lightweights posing and preening like horses at an auction. Each day for these people is just another forum to sell themselves and their ugly souls to the highest bidder. It’s not good enough that they rent out and own all the fancy places in town, but now they feel the need to shutdown one of the last vestiges for the common person: the bowling alley. I didn’t realize the acid would make me so cynical.
“What the hell is wrong with you people,” I said loudly enough that the costume designer and casting director turned and stared at me. I wouldn’t have been so scared except for the fact that their bodies stayed straight while their necks cracked and popped to spin backwards like The Exorcist. I knew the first stages of the acid were going to be brutal, but this was getting intense.
The entire crowd of people before me had peeled off their skin, letting their glossy exoskeletons rub up against each other. They all began dancing and rubbing upon one another with the same jerky movements Piper had displayed. Piper, in fact, was easily distinguishable among the other flesh bags; her slimy carcass still had on the awful sundress she arrived wearing. I figured if you’re going to take off your skin, at least take that hideous garment off with it as well. Her bodily fluids had already begun seeping through the smock, making it stick like wet paper to her frame.
I turned to see the bartender staring at me. It wasn’t the gentle “how can I help you?” stare I had received from her earlier, it was more like the “what the hell is happening to your face” stare given to people with high amounts of intoxicants in their system. It was then that I began noticing the strange effects this strain of LSD had on my face. One side of my mouth was crooked with a half-cocked smile while the other was in a downright pout as if I was going through an extreme bout of Bell’s Palsy, one I was apparently happy to receive. I quickly asked someone to take me home to end this nightmarish chapter and hide under my bed sheets for the rest of the night.
My next piece of business was to find a job. I had already secured a weekend gig working at a vitamin shop in the city, but I needed something during the week to not only supplement my income, but further my goal of integrating into New Mexico’s picture trade. Uncle Roberto gave me the phone number of New Mexico’s film office liaison. I hounded her and sent her my resume twice a week until she finally let up. My first job was to be a production assistant on an infomercial for a used car lot.
I arrived at the lot located next to one of the two amusement parks located in the area. The sun beat down on me as I parked my-poetry mobile and walked up to the man holding the very heavy, expensive looking camera taking stock footage of the vehicles.
“Hey,” he said, “you must be Daniel.”
“Dariel,” I corrected, “what do you need me to do?”
“Basically, you’re gonna be helping us white-balance, set up lighting, and wrangling extras.”
The cameraman, John, then introduced me to the star of the show: a middle aged, orange-tanned man with the hair of Wayne Newton except with less hair. His teeth were white enough to white-balance the camera, and his face looked like raw leather hide; I was immediately disgusted with him. Despite my judgments, he seemed to be nice enough, albeit arrogant and self-absorbed. As we filmed throughout the day, he insisted on improvising his monologues in front of the vehicles as if this were his masterpiece of video; a Fellini of used car lots.
Then the unthinkable happened: they had ran out of testimonials. You know, those people you see on television explaining the wonders of foresaid product or service.
“I don’t know how I lived without it!”
“Things were most difficult without this product.”
“My husband asked me to buy one and I haven’t looked back ever since.”
Up until this point, we had actually used people that were satisfied with their car purchases at this establishment. But, after two couples declined to show up at their scheduled interview times, we had to improvise. The host, in all of his orange glory, turned to me and asked if I could act as if I had purchased a car here and was incredibly satisfied. I agreed.
So, there I sat in front of the camera that I had help set up all day long, saying, “Dr. Trade is a madman!” towards the lens. Several takes later, and I had completed my duty to the production. Little did I know that this day would haunt me for the rest of my time in New Mexico.
From my previous job, I was able to procure a gig as a production assistant on a film starring Charlize Theron and Woody Harrelson called North Country. It was the story of the first-ever class action lawsuit by a woman upon a large corporation due to sexual harassment. True to her career, Charlize was forced to look as ugly as a supermodel from South Africa could look. The shoot took place mostly in Santé Fe, but was relocated to Albuquerque for the courtroom scenes for which I was hired. My prestigious job was to operate the elevator taking the cast and crew from the parking lot to the courtrooms. Later, they allowed me to lay down cardboard for the dollies so they did not tear up the carpet inside the courtrooms. I had perhaps the worst job on the set, but I didn’t let that affect my performance. I was focused on conversing with everyone on the set.
“Nice sandals,” I said to Charlize.
“Yup,” she responded without breaking her gaze with the elevator’s buttons.
“Good luck,” I said as we reached the floor.
“Mm hm,” she said.
Okay, so maybe we didn’t converse as much as I imagined, but at least the afterparty was good.
The party consisted of an open bar and a rented out bowling alley (for some reason in New Mexico most wrap parties are held in bowling alleys) for which the cast and crew was only allowed. I made use of the open bar, ordering several rum and cokes until my brain was adequately blasted. My bowling party had consisted of the craft table workers, some extras, and the assistant to the assistant director, Carlos. We had bowled until we were all drunk, and our plan was to take one of our party members to the strip club to get spanked for his birthday. Before we left, though, I noticed everyone’s attentions permanently fixated to the party bowling besides us. I looked to my left and gazed upon the beautiful South African figure tossing balls with perfect form: Charlize. She was a vision, a wondrous skirt ending at her heels, she seemed to walk upon the air. My compatriots noticed my gaze and they all began to egg me on.
“Go talk to her,” Carlos said.
I approached her well aware of my inebriated state. She was talking to a gentleman I recognized as one of the actors from television’s ER.
“Excuse me, can I have a picture with you,” I slurred.
“I’m sorry sweetie, no pictures tonight,” she said.
“Well,” I responded not willing to give up, “can I have a hug?”
“Of course!” she responded. Charlize approached me with arms spread out grabbing me in her warm embrace. Her perfume suffocated my olfactory senses; I almost fell asleep in her arms. I told her the only thing that came to my mind in that moment of pure ecstasy.
“I love you, Charlize,” I said.
“That’s nice,” she said, as she slowly backed away from our love connection, turning to reignite the conversation with the dude from ER.
From the North Country job, I was able to score another gig working as a production assistant on Steven Spielberg’s Into the West miniseries. This job would require more dedication though; it demanded that I wake up at 3 a.m. to drive all the way to Santé Fe to arrive in the middle of a faux Wild West town by 6 a.m. This is the same faux Wild West town that Tombstone and other westerns were shot. Luckily, for me, films tend to not be shot on the weekends which allowed me explore the alcohol-fueled landscape that was Albuquerque’s Main Street. It was lined with clubs and bars all advocating the depth of the southwest’s dependency on drugs and liquor. I stayed away from the drugs, but as far as the liquor went, I had my share. I became a regular at several bars, and soon enough, I had friends everywhere. Albuquerque was the kind of small town where everyone knew everyone. My favorite bar had become a little pub on the end of the strip’s east section that was small, but had a relaxed atmosphere and several televisions located at the edges. This is where my past became a haunting vision.
“Dr. Trade is a Madman!” said the face on the TV. I looked over, immediately recognizing the face and voice: it was me. I was on the screen extolling the benefits of inking a deal with the used car lot that I had shot the infomercial for. There I was, in all of my fake smiling glory, pretending that I had actually bought a car from this sham of a dealership. I had become a puppet, a tool of the machine meant to bribe good-hearted folks into buying a product.
My foray into the Into the West shoot had gone quite well, so far. I was in charge of wrangling the extras, something I already had experience in, plus I had the chance to work with the different departments like sound and props. It was refreshing to work in such an extreme environment as the desert. During the day, the sun was unforgiving, yet during the night, temperatures would reach 20 degrees. It was a battle between the hot and cold elements of nature. Several times, workers on the set would look at me and say, “You better put on some sunscreen, kid.”
I ignored their advice, believing that I would obtain the greatest tan known to mankind. Several days later, I had turned into a mutant. My face broke out in blisters; they ran down from the bridge of my nose onto my cheeks; pockets full of yellow puss adorned my face making me look like a victim of leprosy. Following my facial reconstruction I had become violently sick. I finished the rest of the television mini-series, but I did so under a weakened state. My resolve had begun to leave my spirit. I no longer knew what it was I was here for.
To make matters worse, I had been living in the bedroom of one of my uncle’s friend’s house, but after getting some money from the shoot, as well as the vitamin store, I was able to afford my very first apartment. I found a place near the center of the city, several blocks away from the courthouses and bail bonds that occupied that section. The apartment was a converted basement that had its own driveway and entrance from the street; it seemed pleasant enough.
My neighbor, who also lived in the converted house, was a meth addict named Adam. I did not know that he was addicted to meth, until he was nice enough to wake me up one morning by urinating on my feet as I slept. This was the very first time anyone had done such a thing, and I was shocked by the gesture. After washing up I returned to the scene of his pissing crime in hopes of maiming him only to discover he had fallen asleep in the very same puddle of urine he had unleashed on me.
After the Into the West shoot, I became disinterested in the film industry. I had become a toy for which they could disfigure and relocate to various parts for their disposal. I was shouting the wonders of Dr. Trade, while facilitating Spielberg’s revisionist history of the Native Americans. On top of all of this, one of my best friends had died back home in a motorcycle accident that also took the life of his cousin. I had enough: I was going back to New Jersey.
At my last night in Albuquerque, my girlfriend at the time had invited me to partake in a gala held at the house of a producer for the ABC Family TV show, Wildfire. It was a wild event, and towards the end of the night, I was enticed up into the attic where several of the cast and crew were blowing lines. I watched as these television princes and princesses snorted the white stuff up their noses off a dresser as they chatted about their future projects. I, a victim of star obsessions, began to partake in the festivities; it took hold of me. Before I knew it, it was time for me to board a plane to head back home to New Jersey.